On Feb. 11, 2018, Michigan came into the Kohl Center at 19–7 overall and 8–5 in the Big Ten. It left Madison that day with an 83–72 win, one that no one at the time knew would kick off a ridiculous run by the Wolverines—one that would go through the rest of the regular season, Big Ten tournament, NCAA tournament and more than two months of the 2018–19 season.
On Jan. 19, 2019, Michigan returned to the Kohl Center having lost just one game in its last 32 contests; the one loss, of course, came in the national championship to Villanova. For the first time all season, though, the maize and blue didn’t leave with a “W,” dropping a 64–54 game to Wisconsin behind a 26-point performance by Ethan Happ.
In the grand scheme of things, the loss doesn’t change Michigan’s outlook this season. The Wolverines have proved themselves time and time again this year, most notably with early routs of Villanova, North Carolina and Purdue. Per kenpom.com, their defense has been even more efficient this season than last, even if it’s once again ranked third in the country.
That defense, ultimately, is probably what’s going to carry Michigan this season if it goes on another postseason run. It has two different players (center Jon Teske and guard Zavier Simpson) in the top-10 nationally in defensive win shares, and the team is almost equally good at limiting opposing shooting and keeping opponents off the free throw line. Add in strong defensive rebounding, and its easy to see why this team has so much consistent success.
For Wisconsin, it’s hard to overstate how important Saturday’s win was. The Badgers came into the day having lost four of five, dating back to a road defeat at Western Kentucky to close 2018, and were in danger of putting themselves into a hole when it comes to the race for the top four spots (and a double bye) in the Big Ten tournament. They’ve typically struggled this season when they get too dependent offensively on Happ, but they got enough contributions from others on Saturday to surround his 26-point, 10 rebound, seven-assist effort with a crucial win.
Michigan's loss in Madison did bring to light a concern that still at times lingers over this Wolverines team, however, and that’s its offense. No team gets to 17–0 without a good one, and UM's advantage on that end is that it’s quite balanced, with plenty of different weapons. Three different Wolverines are averaging more than 13 points per game, while Simpson and Teske have stepped out from their primary defensive roles to emerge as solid options as well. Ignas Brazdeikis is leading the team in scoring as a freshman, while Charles Matthews provides steady veteran leadership and Jordan Poole has taken a big sophomore jump, hitting 45% of his threes and averaging 13.4 points.
Having such balance, though, can sometimes be a detriment in crunch time, when a go-to guy is needed to get a bucket. Against the Badgers on Saturday, Michigan led by one with less than eight minutes to go, before Wisconsin closed the game on a 21–10 run to win by double-digits. The Wolverines made just four field goals the rest of the way (and no free throws), ultimately seeing their fate.
Despite the setback in a tough road enviornment, Michigan’s status as one of the best teams in the country and a strong contender for the Big Ten crown is unchanged—though it’s now a step behind its in-state rival in the league standings. That defense isn’t going anywhere, and the Wolverines’ offense has shown many times this season how dangerous it can be when everyone’s clicking. The goal now is to find enough consistency, especially away from Ann Arbor.
Meanwhile, Wisconsin rises to 4–3 in the Big Ten and picks up the most impressive conference win by anyone in the league yet, with games against Illinois and Northwestern up next. Despite six losses, the Badgers have routinely been favored by both analytics and the NET rankings, and a big win over Michigan has only furthered that cause.